CNN and Live Coverage of War
CNN and live coverage altered forever the way that wars and other crises are covered. For the first time in media history, an event is covered as it unfolds, anywhere in the world. Television news organizations today have the capability of going anywhere and covering anything at any time, and on many occasions they are doing it. It has changed forever the way information is handled. The critics would argue that the traditional gatekeeper role of journalists to sift through information and present what seems valid in an accurate way has disappeared with this live coverage. Maybe that's the case. But the point is that the technology does allow information to flow freely. The public is obligated to be more responsible in measuring the impact of information. But that's the way it is, and it's unstoppable.
The Pentagon and the U.S. government [have] every right to present [their] information in any way [they] want to. But the press does have the right to comment, to come up with contrary information, to quote other sources and to have its own reporters around the world, putting their own spin on what's going on. So during the Gulf War, you had Stormin' Norman having a major influence on what Americans were thinking. But you also had Saddam Hussein on CNN for an hour and a half, giving his version of what was happening, and all manner of other people on many other networks contributing to the flow of information.
During my coverage of the bombing of Baghdad and the other crises of Iraq, it became clear to me after two or three weeks that the United States was going after what they call civil military targets, like bridges that weren't used by military traffic. They bombed a bunker. The Pentagon said it was possibly used by senior officials; actually, there were 350 women and children killed. The coverage of that bombing forced the Pentagon to reassess what it was doing in Iraq. They went on to other aspects of the strategic plan that were less detrimental to the civilian public, and still won the war.
You had it in Kosovo, where NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy by mistake. The awareness that that was going on forced Pentagon planners to be more aware. In Afghanistan today, the fact that some villages have been mistakenly hit again forces the Pentagon to rethink its targets, and I think it's a great idea. I think they should. We aren't in the business of blowing away civilians around the world in times of war. Sometimes it happens. But media coverage of these incidents helps military planners keep on track.
If the United States had lost the Gulf War, or if there had been reverses, like chemical weapons killing forty thousand G.I.s, there would have been a different public reaction. All the spin in the world is worthless if you don't have a satisfactory result. The danger in, say, Afghanistan, when information is concealed from the public because the press is being frozen out, is that if there are negative turns in the story, the public will blame the government and the Pentagon, because there'll be no real awareness of what they're doing over there. So I think governments risk a lot if they're not candid. As long as they're successful, the public will go along with it.
Now the term "partnership" [between government and media] is anathema to many people who feel the press should always be questioning. [But] in terms of national security, a partnership is essential. When the media goes aboard an aircraft carrier, they shouldn't be looking to present information that is negative to the mission. If they go out with an American unit in the field, they shouldn't be looking to provide information that could be detrimental to the safety of those men. To that degree, you're a partnership.
On the other hand, we should also reserve the right to demand accountability from those people who are sending men into action. It works. It's worked in the past. I think it worked in Vietnam. It was the aftermath of Vietnam that gave the press a bad name. It was those who tried to explain away a defeat that used the media as a convenient fall guy.
From Reporting America at War: An Oral History, compiled by Michelle Ferrari, with commentary by James Tobin, published by Hyperion, 2003. Copyright ©, 2003 Goodhue Pictures.